The Holy Grail of Food History—Rediscovered (Pt. 1)
The Story of Our Quest for Silphion, the Lost Herb of the Ancients
If there’s a Holy Grail in the annals of food history, it’s the plant that the ancient Greeks called silphion, and which Romans knew as laser or silphium. According to Pliny the Elder, the last stalk of silphion was shipped from North Africa to Rome, where it was said to have ended up in the ample belly of the Emperor Nero. It was prized for its intoxicating aroma, and a flavor that transformed everything from a plate of scalded sow’s womb to a pot of lentils into a dish fit for the gods. The disappearance of silphion is considered the first extinction of any plant or animal species in recorded history, as well as a cautionary tale in how thoroughly human appetite can extirpate a species from the wild.
While I was researching my latest book, The Lost Supper, I followed up a lead that a professor at the University of Istanbul had re-discovered silphion growing on the Konya Plain in the heart of Turkey. National Geographic sent me to investigate his claims, and I’ve had the opportunity to see the plant growing in the wild, and even had a chance to taste it. I believe that this professor is correct, and that silphion—the long-lost delicacy of the ancient world—never disappeared.
I’m going to share my quest for silphion, and the reasoning that leads me to believe that this plant is the real thing.
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